With Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce sets up camp in the literary real estate generally occupied by Charles De Lint. But where De Lint’s approach is artfully bohemian, Joyce’s is much more workaday. He takes on the intersection of Faerie and the everyday world with muscular, gritty prose and an eye for how it’s the small details of daily life that suffer when something strange – like magic – intrudes on routine. And the title has it right – this is some kind of fairy tale, but not the usual one where wonder has no sharp edges and everyone gets to live happily ever after. The book is a look at consequence and contamination, and how even the best of intentions can wreak havoc.
The stage is set by the cover art – a simple image of fog drawing past empty park benchs at the edge of the woods. The imagery is all liminal – the border between seen and unseen, “tame” park and “wild” forest, drawn in mist running in an unnaturally straight line. The same goes for the font. Joyce’s name is in blocky, solid white, overlaid on the forest and the sky, while the title uses an incomplete, unfilled version of the same font, overlaid largely on the neatly manicured grass. Before the reader hits word one of the story, the lines have been drawn.
The story seems simple enough at first. Two decades ago, a teenaged Tara Martin disappeared from the woods near her house, to devastating effect on her family and her boyfriend. Now, she’s returned on Christmas looking not a day older than when she left, and both she and her loved ones are left to pick up the pieces. Tara’s claim – that she’d gone off into another world where time flowed differently – is impossible for her now-married brother Peter to believe. As for Richie, the boyfriend she left behind, whom everyone figured was responsible for her disappearance, he’s done time and wasted his talent, and Tara’s reappearance tears open old wounds.
This, then, is first touch of magic on the real world. Tara’s impulsive decision to run off with the strange man she meets in the wood, collecting flowers, has brutal effects on her parents, her sibling, and the boyfriend she was trying to leave in any case. It’s also not such a treat for her faerie lover, whose attempt to bring her in sync with the new world he’s delivered her to leads to blood and dissatisfaction all the way around.
Nor is Joyce’s fairyland a pastel wonderland. It’s a place of power and of magic, where earthly customs have no sway and holding to them in the face of a new reality has unforeseen consequences. Sexually free, throbbing with life-force and completely alien to a teenaged girl from small-town England, this other world is no place for someone who won’t surrender to its rules, and Tara’s presence there is just as damaging to Faerie as a fae seducer’s presence is to the so-called “real world”.
But, as Joyce tells us, this problem is not so easily solved. The six months Tara spends in Faerie are twenty years back home, plenty of time for her parents to age, her brother to try to deal with her loss, and Richie to flush away his musical dreams. Her return, and the impossible questions it raises, bring all of that into sharp focus. And if her presence provides some opportunity for healing and redemption, it also bears with it the trailing edge of the otherworld and mere mortals are not built to withstand such things. Even as a psychiatrist Peter hires to try to make sense of Tara’s wild claims comes to his own, non-magical conclusions, the legacy of Tara’s choices in Faerie follows her back home. She can’t just pick up where she left off. She’s not the same person she was when she left, nor are Peter or Richie or her parents. Then there’s the impact she’s had on Faerie’s residents, one of whom wants her back very badly indeed – badly enough to kill for it.
In other words, there’s no going back – not for anyone. The simply fairy tale is not so simple, and the repercussions don’t stop echoing. In the end, any attempt to restore the original state is doomed. Magic – or mundanity – has leached into the world, and changed everything it touched. Accommodation, in the form of an elderly neighbor who visited the other realm and returned long before Tara did, is possible, but only at great cost. In the end, there’s only the question of how much to sacrifice, and how much will be left behind after one does.
That’s not to say that Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a bad book, or a depressing one. On the contrary, it’s wonderfully written and full of small moments of magic. The slow steps toward reconciliation that former best friends Peter and Richie make, inspired by Tara’s return, are marvelous. So’s the journey Peter’s son takes after accidentally shooting an elderly neighbor’s cat, one of guilt, repentance, and perhaps a little wisdom. And it’s the chance meeting of Jack Martin and Mrs. Larwood that later provides Tara with the key to understanding what she must do, and what it will cost if she doesn’t. It’s simply that Joyce doesn’t allow his characters any easy answers or shortcuts. They’re forced to confront what’s staring them in the face, even when it’s impossible or unwanted, and there’s no hiding behind flowery deeds or prose. Not for them, and not for the reader.
The Silent Land, on the other hand, is a much more overtly sentimental book, once that uses the trappings of the weird to highlight the most basic questions of human interaction. A young couple on a ski vacation, Zoe and Jake, suddenly find themselves utterly alone after an avalanche. The town they were visiting is empty; so’s their hotel. It’s just the two of them in an empty world full of snow with what appears to be an endless larder and wine cellar to keep them company. Some would consider it the ultimate romantic getaway, but as the mysteries mount – the strange grey mists at the edge of the village, the static nature of things which ought to decay or be consumed, the inability to contact the outside world – the inevitable revelation as to where they are closes in.
And yet, Joyce pulls it off, juking both his loving couple and the reader. While the astute reader will quickly figure out what exactly seems to have befallen the couple – if nothing else, Lost has ruined that particular ending for generation – Joyce doesn’t play the pat hand. He jumps out of the pleasant prison of St-Bernard-en-Haut and into a pair of chapters about the fathers of the stranded couple, each facing the end in their own way. And then, once the inevitable rhythm of Zoe and Jake’s story has been ruptured, he moves the camera back to them and the ending that brings this story of life and death, endings and beginnings, and the power of love above all to a circular close.
The Silent Land is a more sentimental book than Some Kind of Fairy Tale, and at times it verges on going overboard. At the same time, it goes to the well for horror tropes – mysterious black birds and whispering voices – to hint that not all is well in paradise. In a way, it feels transitional, using the tools of Joyce’s previous body of work in the service of reaching towards a sort of transformation, whereas Some Kind of Fairy Tale has finished the metamorphosis and emerged, new and confident and without any need of looking back.